The National – 17 December 2008
JERUSALEM // Tzipi Livni, the woman leading the ruling Kadima party into Israel’s forthcoming elections, stoked anger in the region last week when she warned that a peace deal would put the future of the country’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens inside Israel in doubt.
Speaking to a group of Jewish schoolchildren in Tel Aviv, she said: “When the Palestinian state is created, I will be able to go to Palestinian citizens, who we call Israeli Arabs, and say to them – you are residents with equal rights, but your national solution is in another place.”
Late last year, before becoming head of Kadima, Ms Livni made similar, though less noticed, comments. She declared that a Palestinian state in Gaza and parts of the West Bank would be the “answer” to Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who constitute nearly a fifth of the country’s population.
Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of parliament, demanded that Ms Livni explain her intention: “She must decide whether she means to leave a million Arabs without political rights or a national identity, or whether she really intends to transfer a million Arab citizens to the Palestinian state that will be established.”
Swiftly on Mr Tibi’s heels, the Lebanese militia Hizbollah issued a statement that Ms Livni was giving voice to a plan “essentially based on expelling an entire population from its land”.
Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, also criticised her remarks saying they “show that Israel is not serious about a solution or the negotiations with the Palestinians”.
Later questioned, Ms Livni reiterated that Palestinian citizens’ “national aspirations should be realised elsewhere” but added: “There is no question of carrying out a transfer or forcing them to leave.”
The clarification was needed because Ms Livni’s comments are the latest in a series of speeches and legislative manoeuvres suggesting that a future government may revoke the citizenship of its Palestinian population.
There is particular concern among the country’s Palestinian minority because opinions similar to Ms Livni’s have been voiced previously by the leaders of the two main political parties challenging Kadima in the elections.
Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, which enjoys a lead in the polls, has referred in the past to the Palestinian minority as “a demographic threat” because its birth rates are far higher than those of the Jewish population.
He has urged the development of policies to “guarantee a Jewish majority”, and has also lauded child allowance cuts he introduced as finance minister on the grounds that they appeared to have a “positive effect” in reducing the number of babies born to Israel’s Palestinian citizens.
Similarly, Ehud Barak, leader of the supposedly left-wing Labor party and a former prime minister, told an interviewer in 2002 that it was “not inconceivable” that Palestinian citizens would have their citizenship revoked. He added: “I don’t recommend that government spokesmen speak of it.”
The political consensus on this issue should not be surprising. The debate among the Jewish majority about where the country’s 1.2 million Palestinian citizens belong has intensified since the launch of the Oslo process in the early 1990s.
Israeli politicians believe that by conceding a Palestinian state they are entitled to expect the entrenchment of the country’s Jewishness.
The most important annual security gathering, known as the Herzliya conference, attended by the leaders of all the main parties, has been considering ways to deal with the Palestinian minority since 2000.
The discussions there suggest Palestinian citizens are likely to face an uncomfortable choice: either commit to loyalty tests and have their citizenship effectively downgraded to the status of temporary resident or move to the Palestinian state.
The far-right has been calling openly for expulsion for decades. The increasingly popular Yisrael Beiteinu party, however, has also introduced the idea of land swaps with the Palestinian Authority in which the borders would be changed to incorporate the settlers inside Israel while the homes of large numbers of Palestinian citizens would be relocated behind the separation wall.
In private, Israeli governments have been pondering how such a plan might be implemented over the opposition of the international community and in violation of international law. An area known as the Little Triangle, hugging the north-west corner of the West Bank and densely populated with 250,000 Palestinian citizens, is the chief target of the scheme.
Mr Barak tentatively proposed such a plan at the Camp David negotiations, overseen by Bill Clinton, the former US president, in 2000. The media also revealed that Mr Barak’s successor, Ariel Sharon, discussed a similar idea with the then-leader of the Labor party, Shimon Peres, in 2004.
Surveys show Palestinian citizens are deeply opposed to land swaps. They fear the precedent may later justify physical expulsions, or “transfer” as Israelis popularly call it, and that the relative privileges of their second-class citizenship will be lost if they join other Palestinians in the ghettoes being promoted as a Palestinian state in current peace negotiations.
In the meantime, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has been busy drafting measures to further erode the minority’s rights.
The most significant – a form of loyalty legislation – gives the state sweeping and secretive powers to revoke the citizenship of anyone committing a “breach of trust” with the state, including by living in many Arab or Muslim states, as well as in Gaza.